CHAPTER 3: “I need a guy resident!”

Samantha hesitated. She looked at Dr. Falkner to see if he was joking. He was not. She knew part of the job in her pathology residency training was to perform the autopsy. But this was not just an autopsy—it was a COVID-19 case. In fact, all of the bodies the men were bringing in and stacking up were all COVID-19 cases. Soon the room would be full of COVID-19 dead bodies. She couldn’t imagine that she would be opening all the bodies from the plastic bags and doing the things Dr. Falkner expected her to do. What did he say? Counting, identifying, tagging, documenting the names and the origin of the hospital and cataloging the specifics of the dead? Samantha was gifted in remembering and memorizing things, but she was not sure whether those were the only things Dr. Falkner said.

As she was trying to untie the ropes around the head of the dead body, the two men came back again with another body on a gurney behind Dr. Falkner. They were doing their own work without paying too much attention to the two doctors all suited up as if they were used to their routine jobs. They did not look like the construction workers Samantha traveled with on the boat, although it was very difficult to tell who was who, with masks covering most of their faces. The ropes and the plastic bag were soaking wet from the rain and it was difficult for her to untie the rope.

As she finally pulled the rope around the neck toward her, the head moved in her direction. She wanted to scream.

She had heard the horror stories from her friends who had done autopsy rotations before her, so she was somewhat prepared to face this. However, when she actually touched the dead body through the plastic bag, she was very tense, scared to death and horrified.

Dr. Falkner looked at Samantha and was disgusted. He took over and untied the ropes himself. Then he unzipped the plastic bag. The head of the dead was revealed. It was a morbidly obese Caucasian male. Big fat face, gray, thin unwashed curly hair all tangled up, eyes closed, mouth biting the cut-out ventilator tube and the thick, hardly recognizable neck due to fatty tissue all around.

As Dr. Falkner unzipped the bag all the way to the toes, Samantha recognized there were pink fluids under the shoulder and the side of the body where she was standing. The body was clothed in a hospital gown with spotty wet areas. She could not tell whether it was water from the rain or body fluid. A cut urinary catheter was attached to his penis. The right toe had a toe tag with his name, birth date and a medical record number.

“Now I want you to take the plastic bag out, but very carefully. Make sure the fluid does not get on you,” Dr. Falkner said to her. “On my count of three, you’ll need to pull the bag away. Got it?”

As soon as he said that, he was already moving the dead body toward him by grabbing the arm of the dead from Samantha’s side with the intravenous (IV) needle still stuck in the arm with blue tape, rotating and lifting the body as if he was hugging the body. Rigor mortis had already set in the body, and it was turning toward Dr. Falkner as he moved it. Samantha grabbed hold of the plastic bag and pulled it toward her, hoping not to spill the pink fluid collection on her jumpsuit.

Dr. Falkner grunted, “Now pull…pull!” but Samantha could not get a firm grip on the other side of the plastic zipper to pull the bag out.

“Oh, shit! I need a guy resident!” he was frustrated, putting the body back into the supine position. He stood there for a minute, then asked one of the men who was transporting the bodies to help. Samantha moved to one side, letting the other guy to come over and take her place.

“I am not going to do that Doc!” the man responded. “You guys are all geared up, and I’m just wearing this piece of shit—what do you call this? Hazmat suit? No way, José! You think an inmate like me has no value? I am not dying with the virus!”

Samantha was shocked to hear that those men were inmates. She knew Hart Island had a correctional facility, a prison, but she didn’t make the obvious connection that it was the inmates who were working to move the bodies and digging the mass graves on this island.

“All right, all right!” Dr. Falkner said. “Get back here! We are going to do this slowly. What was your name?”

“Samantha.”

“Yeah, Samantha, Sam. I am going to call you Sam. You are going to pull the bag out on my count of three. Ready?”

Samantha got closer to the body and this time she was grabbing the bag on two sides, one from the head and the other from the mid-body.

“Okay. One, two, three!”

She pulled the bag out, and the pink fluid spilled all over her arms and on Dr. Falkner’s abdomen and pelvic area.

“Shit!” he said letting the fluid drip all the way down to his foot. “Fucking fat people!” he added. The plastic bag was pulled only partially; a job halfway done.

“One more time, Sam. Ready? One, two, three!” Samantha managed to successfully pull the plastic bag all the way to the groin area, of course spilling some more of the pink fluid on the floor.

“Okay, good, the rest is easy,” he said, while he was putting the body back on the table. He walked around toward the feet of the body and pulled off the plastic bag.

“Don’t worry, the serosanguinous fluid won’t penetrate through your jumpsuit. It is air and liquid tight.”

Oh no, it is serosanguinous fluid, Samantha thought. It was most likely contagious then, as it would be filled with the COVID-19 virus. In fact, it could be in highly concentrated form.

“Wait a minute, Dr. Falkner. I am not ready to do this,” Samantha said.

There was a moment of silence after that. He looked at her intensely through his face shield and waited for her to say something more.

“I am not ready to do this. I know I am supposed to go to a morgue for autopsy rotation for a month but this is not what I expected,” Samantha said mustering up her courage. She was in fact very upset with the current situation. She did not sign up to be a physician, a pathologist when she had to put her life in danger by taking the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.

“You think I like this?” Dr. Falkner responded angrily. “Who the hell do you think you are? We are in this shit now, and even I have no choice. We have to bury these bodies as fast as we can before they become more infectious. God knows what would happen if the bodies get blown up with intestinal bacteria and aerosolize all over the world.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued, “You are doing a service to this world, and to New York City. Now, get back to work!” He was shouting by this point, and even startled some inmates.

Samantha wasn’t sure what she did afterward. They were very quietly doing the work. She cut open the hospital gown using scissors, and inscribed the weight, characteristics of the dead body, name, age, gender, and race onto a piece of paper Dr. Falkner provided. It was difficult to find the name of the hospital where the body came from. There was no time to pull the IV line from the dead man’s arm or intubation tube out of his mouth as they struggled to place the body into a coffin. The inmates had brought in a cheap, light colored wood coffin. One of the jobs for Samantha was to write the name of the dead in large letters using a magic marker on all sides and the top of the coffin.

“There are 22 more coming, Doc!” one of the inmates called out.

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Chapter 5: Panic

Samantha could not believe he actually just took off. “Bastard!” she said out loud. She looked around and saw that there were still a few bodies left in the morgue they had not finished with. The morgue was not refrigerated, and the bodies would decompose. Samantha went into the studio and locked the door behind her. She sat and stared at the empty paper dishes Dr. Falkner left on the table. She was not sure how she could fall asleep here, all alone in such a strange place. This was a nightmare! Who could imagine what she was going through?

She moved the kitchen table and the chair against the doorknob to block the entry way from outside. She couldn’t get over how insensitive Dr. Falkner was being, not knowing if the prison wardens had a key to the studio. This must have been his temporary place until he finished his autopsy research project. She figured all the items in here must be his own stuff that he brought in. Samantha untied and flipped over her large scrub pants to see the inscription, LONG ISLAND CORONER. 

Of course, it is his!

She was eating his food, wearing his scrubs, using his towels and soaps. It creeped her out to be borrowing his stuff. This was classic. Medical professionals never tell residents the details they need to hear, even what to bring for survival. Wouldn’t it be helpful to tell residents what to expect, what we need, where it is, and what the accommodations would be?

She thought about the guard who she met earlier that day. He must have been a prison warden. He saw her and asked her where she was going to stay. He could probably find out where she is now. She wondered how many prisoners and wardens were on this island.

Samantha got up quickly and moved the kitchen table and chair away from the door. She had to secure the garage door and the entry door from inside of the morgue better. She went out of the studio and picked up some ropes to tie the garage door. There was a loop in the middle of the garage door, but the rope was not long, unable to attach to the side of the door where a piece of iron was sticking out. She connected a few ropes and tied them together to make one long rope. She secured the rope, securing the garage door to prevent it from being opened from the outside. She then moved the morgue table to the other door she and Dr. Falkner had entered through and pushed it against the doorknob. 

Courtesy of @nadi-lindsay instagram, pexels.com

It did not look too secure. Someone could easily push the door open from the outside. There wasn’t any way to lock it from the inside, so she opened the door again to see if there was a key lock from the outside. There wasn’t one, so she rearranged the morgue table again. Samantha looked around to see what else she could use to help secure the door shut.

There was not much except for the dead bodies, and there was no way she was going to move the bodies.

She could not believe she was actually amongst the dead. In fact, there were more dead bodies than alive ones on the island. She reminded herself that the dead could not hurt her, except what if the virus was seeping out of the bags and being emitted into the air?

She ran into the studio, locked the door, and pushed the chair and table against the door again. She was breathing hard. The green scrub pants were covering her sneakers and dragging along on the floor, so she changed her scrub pants again, and folded up the bottom to fit her leg length.

She sat on the bed and took out her cell phone, only to notice she had no cell coverage or Wi-Fi connection. She wanted to call Ed Liu, her boyfriend. He should arrive to the CDC in Atlanta by now. He was going there to join the folks in the infectious division to travel to Wuhan, China, to investigate the origin of the virus.

Samantha and Ed met in college at Cornell and maintained a relationship, even though they were diverging in their career paths. She went to medical school, and he joined the Army ROTC as they paid for his college tuition, then attended a PhD program in DC to be a scientist in bioweapons.

I will worry him sick tonight, she thought. They contacted each other regularly, especially when she was changing rotations.

Samantha scrolled through the contact list on her cell phone. She thought about using the rotary phone to contact her parents. They were traveling and having the time of their lives on a cruise celebrating their 50th anniversary.

They left a month ago for the Mediterranean, and the entire trip was about two months. Samantha had been anxious about their trip from the beginning, but her parents were adamant that they would be fine. When they left on the cruise in late February, the virus was not defined as a pandemic yet. It was on March 11th, 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The cell coverage for them was spotty, and her parents usually called her when they landed somewhere while touring. Besides, she could not tell them where she is now as they would worry sick. It would be even harder for them to understand why she was here at Hart Island. They were not happy that she became a doctor, anyway.

Samantha wanted to talk to Dr. Wells, her resident director, to update him about what was going on, but there was no way to contact him as she did not have his direct phone number. This experience here on Hart Island was so upsetting. It was absolutely inappropriate to put any resident here, exposing them to the deadly virus for the sake of a stupid doctor, or whoever it is for a stupid research project. Samantha planned to report this abuse to her residency director the next day and go back to the Bronx by catching the boat with the contractor guys. She was fuming in anger the more she thought about her conditions. She was ready to attack Dr. Falkner and even take his medical license away for abusing the trainee. She would also contact the resident union representative in New York City to report this doctor. 

After contemplating many tactics of revenge against Dr. Falkner, she looked at his laptop and input the data she wrote on the paper that day. She had nothing else to do that night. She looked into other files on the laptop and saw that he had begun the manuscript; explaining the methodology, an introduction regarding the COVID-19 infection, and his findings of how people died with it. She had to admit; it was a very interesting article that he was writing. It was methodical, and well written.

She couldn’t believe how he could write so well with full details but cannot communicate with her the same way.

In a separate file, he had his family photos. She saw what appeared to be his house, his wife and his son. His wife was beautiful, blonde, just like him. Samantha felt like she was intruding into his personal life, but the more she looked at the personal photos, the more interested she became about Dr. Falkner. Her anger subsided, and the desires to get him into trouble were dissolving.

Courtesy Sam Willis, Instagram, pixels.com

She got hungry as the night deepened. A small window next to the kitchen was still dripping with the rain. She found the cup of instant noodles Dr. Falkner told her about and ate it. It was getting cold, so it was nice to eat something hot. Samantha wore her parka hood and wrapped her body inside the bed. She wondered if the sheets and blanket were clean and if Dr. Falkner or the previous resident had slept there, but she was too tired to change the sheets and she didn’t even know if there was a clean sheet for her to use.

She still smelled the Irish men’s soap but could not tell if it was coming from her or from his blanket.

Samantha fell asleep in an infant position with her parka overcoat and blanket warming her head and body. She dreamed about the heavy, dead body falling onto her in the middle of the night. 

It startled her awake, so she got up and sat on the bed. The bedside light next to her was still on, illuminating the studio, so she turned it off. She looked at the window for a while, making sure no one was coming, then she went back to sleep.

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